Insights from the In-Depth Interviews (IDIS)

The freight mode choice policy to be effective in inducing desired changes in behavior, policy makers must have a clear idea about how the intended target(s) would react to the policy measure(s). Lack of knowledge about the behavioral response of the target groups could lead to negative unintended effects or ineffective policy making. In-depth interviews (IDIs) involve conducting intensive individual interviews that provide the interviewee an opportunity to explain the overall picture of a specific topic, not constrained by specific questions. IDIs also provide the interviewer the flexibility to change the questions based on the inputs received during the IDI. Using IDIs, the team collected information on the firms’ overall supply chain process, the factors considered in mode choice decisions, and policies/changes they require or encourage in the future for an efficient modal split. The following sections provide: 1) the methodology and approach to IDIs; 2) the overview of the firms interviewed and the supply chain process; 3) the factors interviewees consider in mode choice decisions; 4) the suggestions given by the firms to move towards sustainable freight mode shifts; and 5) the concluding remarks, summarizing the overall IDIs.

Approach to In-Depth-Interviews (IDIs)

In-depth interviews (IDIs) are a qualitative research technique to conduct intensive individual interviews to explore the interviewee’s perspective on an idea, program, or situation. These interviews are very useful to obtain detailed information about people’s behavior, offering a more complete picture of their perspectives (Boyce and Neale 2006). Moreover, IDIs are important research tools that enable extended discussions with key individuals, an opportunity to gather insight, probe for additional information, and dynamically change the direction of the discussion as demanded by the circumstances. Typically one hour in duration, IDIs are an excellent way to discuss complex problems, and gain insight from decision makers, industry leaders, and lead researchers who can provide critical input to transportation problems. Complemented with surveys, and field trips, IDIs give deeper insights about agent behavior.

To obtain useful results from IDIs, the questionnaire need to be well prepared and tested beforehand to avoid any confusions (Holguín-Veras et al. 2013). A survey script should be prepared with a brief introduction specifying the purpose of the interview. It is also important to mention the confidentiality of the responses. After explaining the process, the script should contain the main relevant (general and specific) questions about the topic of interest. This questionnaire should be a guide, not a straitjacket. The interview should gradually transform into a conversation where more questions and answers may arise. The script should have a note mentioning that if the interviewee has more questions or suggestions, he/she should contact the interviewer. Finally, to avoid misunderstandings, the text/document produced based on the IDI should be shared with the interviewee to confirm that the written conclusions/ideas are exactly what they wanted to convey. This is important to make sure that the results represent a consensus of what was discussed, and no confidential information is released.

In-depth interviews can be an efficient means of data collection in the freight industry. These interviews should be focused on individuals familiar with the topic of interest, whether they be company-specific, or people who work within a certain freight sector (Holguín-Veras et al. 2013). Also, IDIs can shed light on important freight decisions. For instance, if the main factors determining freight mode to transport certain commodities is sought, an interview with a knowledgeable supply chain manager in a shipper company might be all that is required to determine those factors. The team conducted research on the context of policy-induced freight modal shifts, or more specifically, to understand the factors that determine mode choice. In doing so, the authors interviewed representatives of the freight industry (selected shippers, carriers, and receivers that collectively cover a broad range of business conditions and geographies) about the types of freight mode choice considered when shipping or receiving goods. The interviews highlighted the key factors taken into account when mode choice decisions are made. The authors: (1) defined the interview goals and objectives; (2) designed the script for the IDIs; (3) identified the various stakeholder groups to be targeted during the interview process (e.g., manufacturers in various industry sectors, trucking companies, railroads, receivers of goods); and (4) produced a draft list of individuals considered for IDIs. Having identified the individuals selected for IDIs, the authors proceeded to schedule conference calls, in-person interviews, and field trips to gather input about the description of the firm; the overview of the supply chain; the factors taken into account when making mode choice decisions; problems or challenges faced; and policies or improvements recommended. After analyzing all the IDIs that were conducted, the authors selected a list of eleven IDIs to perform the analysis of the responses.

Description of the firms interviewed

In order to provide a general idea of the participating firms, Table 9 shows a summary of the industry sectors to which they belong and an overview of their mode choices. The table shows that truck is the predominant mode, as it is used by all shippers and receivers (nine of the eleven interviewees), followed by intermodal (seven companies) and rail-only (six companies). Intermodal is used by most shippers (three out of five) and receivers (three out of four). Inland waterways, air and courier services are used on a limited basis. All shippers and one receiver indicated they use rail. Two shippers indicated they use inland waterways for shipping/receiving bulk products. Air is rarely used by shippers, unless the cargo has to be delivered urgently. Since the mode choices depend upon the nature of the business and the specifics of the corresponding supply chains, brief descriptions of the companies are also provided below.

Table 9

Receiver 1 (R1) is a large national retailer that imports about 25% of the company’s cargo while the other 75% is sourced domestically. The primary modes used for domestic shipments are truck and rail. The company utilizes their Distribution Centers (DCs) to consolidate cargo to send Full Truckloads (FTL) or full-train loads in order to be cost efficient. The typical shipment to stores is a full 53 foot trailer. When possible they aim to do backhauls by doing multi-vendor pickups on their return trips back to the DCs. The company owns the majority of the trailers used though the company hires intermodal carriers to move the cargo by train and truck. These carriers make the day-to-day mode choice decisions based on the goals and cost structure specified in the contract.

Receiver 2 (R2) is a chain of department stores that receives cargo from both international and domestic sources. These inbound shipments are about evenly divided between intermodal (rail and truck) and FTL. The receiver operates regional and local DCs, and E-commerce fulfillment centers. Inventory from the DCs and store locations are used to fulfill E-commerce orders, though in very few cases may also be fulfilled directly from the vendors. These shipments are carried out by third party de-consolidators, major intermodal providers, and third party logistics (3PL) providers. Every year, the firm aims to use intermodal as much as possible, especially for trips longer than 700 miles, by issuing an early proposal to 3PLs. The average drayage distance for intermodal deliveries is 100 miles.

Receiver 3 (R3) runs a chain of food stores and uses the firm’s DCs to transport goods to store locations. The DCs receive cargo using their own truck fleet or vendors’ trucks. A DC typically receives 60-70 deliveries per day, of which 40% are perishable goods that require temperature controlled facilities. Aside from trucks, the company receives two to three car loads per week via a rail third party logistics (3PL) provider. Truck is the main mode for deliveries to the stores. A typical store used to receive ten deliveries a week due to perishable goods but this has now been reduced to five deliveries due to the use of new technologies. The backhaul department controls 50% of the total deliveries to the DCs, of which 30% is the “true” backhaul by company-owned trucks, while remaining 20% are contingency deliveries mostly due to issues with vendors. This firm has a department to manage recycling, waste management, and returns.

Receiver 4 (R4) is a leading retailer that sources cargo domestically and internationally. Inside the US, the major shipping modes are truck and intermodal. This firm operates three types of DCs: rapid DC—for domestic products; stocking DC—for imports and seasonal domestic supplies to stores; and bulk DC—to handle oversize/weight cargo. In total, all of their DCs in the US receive about 12,000 shipments and send nearly 10,000 shipments a week. Imports are received by ocean using major ports in US (in East and West); it accounts for nearly 120,000 Forty Foot Equivalent Units (FEU) a year. The company spends about 65% of the transportation costs on trucking, the majority being FTL; 10% on intermodal; 13% of the spending goes to waterways for imports; and the remainder on express carriers. The majority of the cargo goes through the company’s DCs before being transported to the stores; though about 25% of the domestic products are supplied by the vendors directly to stores.

Shipper 1 (S1) is a large machine manufacturer which receives inputs mostly from international suppliers. Outbound cargo are the final products, mostly transported internationally; 20% of which are over-dimensional loads. Freight is transported by all modes and are typically large. In general, small sized products come in Less-than-Truckload (LTL), and medium to large sized shipments are delivered by FTL. The inputs to the manufacturing units are transported by LTL on Just-in-Time (JIT) basis as the firm finds it to be more cost efficient due to high inventory costs. For expedited services, the company uses air transportation. Rail is used when product size is too large to be transported over road and the shipments are sent directly to the port. The company uses ocean as the major mode (for both inbound and outbound) of transport utilizing major ports all over the world. The consolidation takes place at ports before loading to the containers/project vessels.

Shipper 2 (S2) is an international provider of products and services in multiple economic sectors. The largest portion of the transportation expenditure is spent on trucking, followed by rail and then intermodal. The rest of the spending is assigned to barge, routing, and terminalling (temporary storage for cargo when switching from one mode/vehicle to another. The company owns reefer trucks for which the drivers are outsourced. 40% of the cargo by value are refrigerated cargo, transported only by trucks. The majority of the liquid products are shipped by rail. For exports, the firm uses ocean, particularly for bulk freight.

Shipper 3 (S3) is a large manufacturer with customers across the globe. The raw material for this firm is sourced from various vendors across the US. The two most significant challenges faced by this firm are to ensure that the vast amount of input materials arrive on time at the manufacturing sites, and to deliver on-time to the firm’s numerous customers, particularly those with JIT deliveries. Due to large scale operations the supply chain needed to undergo a drastic change to accommodate customers’ requirements. The inbound exceeds 25 million tons a year—60% truck, 30% rail, and 10% barge/vessels. The outbound deliveries are less than 25 million tons per year—53% truck, 39% rail, and 8% barge/vessels. In terms of number of vehicles in a year, this firm sends in excess of 500,000 trucks, 90,000 railcars, and 1,500 barges. 90% of the outbound deliveries are done by the company, while the remaining 10% is transported by 3PL providers.

Shipper 4 (S4) is a leading mid-scale manufacturer, whose outbound cargo exceeds 100,000 tons a year. The largest portion goes by truck (75% FTL, 7% LTL), followed by intermodal (9%). The remainder goes by rail, ocean, and air. For international shipments the firm uses a handful of ports in the US. All FTL make multiple deliveries to different receivers while some of LTL shipments occupy less than half of the truck’s capacity (based on the customer’s order). The truck deliveries to customers are done either at nights or early in the mornings. This firm has its own trucks running between manufacturing units and the warehouses. Most of the other trucks are managed by 3PL providers. The inbound cargo consists of domestic and international, for which the entire supply chain is handled by the suppliers.

Shipper 5 (S5) is a major manufacturer of chemicals and agriculture products. The majority of the inbound cargo is domestic; 90% transported by rail (by weight)—receiving 1-5 rail deliveries a week—and shipment sizes vary from 160,000 to 180,000 lbs. The outbound shipment sizes vary from 2,000 to 180,000 lbs. that use truck (40,000-45,000 lbs.), rail or ocean. Ocean is the predominant mode for outbound cargo as the main customers are international. The firm finds it not feasible to use inland waterways, but uses major ocean ports in US. Volatile and hazmat cargo are transported by rail because rail provides safer service than trucks for the volume of cargo they handle.

Carrier 1 (C1) specializes in providing a wide spectrum of transportation services for inland waterways. The services vary from entire logistics including transportation and storage to towing and renting out equipment. The carrier deals with unique types of cargo that are oversized or overweight that cannot be shipped by either rail or truck. This firm operates for 7-8 months in a year.

Carrier 2 (C2) is a 3PL that provides end-to-end service, transporting goods door-to-door. They provide value-added services to their customers such as warehousing, packaging, and grading. The smallest shipment the company handles is one FTL and sends 40-50 trucks on a regular day and 130-150 trucks on a busy day to customers. In a typical week, they move more than 100 railcars containing approximately 3-3.5 truckloads of cargo per railcar. This firm ensures reliability by tracking each railcar using GPS devices throughout the trip. The drayage distance is typically less than 350 miles.

The description of the companies interviewed and their supply chains provides a basis to better understand of the factors that are taken into consideration when making mode choice decisions. The factors that arose during the interviews are presented next.

Factors affecting mode choice

The IDIs revealed that various factors influence mode choice, summarized in Table 10. It is worthy of note that C1 and C2 operate in specific mode markets (inland waterways and intermodal/rail, respectively), so the information they provided should be interpreted as the factors they believe their customers consider when selecting the freight mode to use. This section discusses the most significant factors.


The IDIs revealed that cost is one of the top two influencers on mode choice, which was identified by eight of the eleven interviewees as a key factor. However, it is worthy to note that cost is never the only determinant of mode choice; it is usually associated with other factors as the company needs to maintain a certain quality of service in their operations. So, if the cheapest mode option will decrease product quality or other operating standards below the minimum required by the company, that mode will not be selected. The companies aim for FTL over LTL or full-train load instead of a single or a few rail cars, when possible, to increase efficiency and reduce costs. R2 stated that cost is the most important factor and that, as a result, they aim to use intermodal as much as possible to decrease costs.

Quality of service

The second top two factors is quality of service which was listed as a significant factor by eight of the eleven interviewees. The term “Quality of service” was used to refer to the wide range of service characteristics that influence quality of service, including among others: “reliability”, “level of service”, “consistency”, “dependability”, “proper handling of the cargo”, and “good customer service”. The interviewees stated that the need for a high quality of service lead them to prefer trucks and that, conversely, a negative view of the quality of service provided by rail and intermodal deters them from increasing the use of these modes. R3 stated that the company uses trucks to get deliveries on-time, and with the desired quality of service standards, as the company’s sales depend highly on the timeliness of the shipment: “If rail does not meet our sales timing we are going to end up losing a lot of product. If we get it all on Monday and the sale starts on Saturday, we are in trouble. With trucks the deliveries happen timely.”

Table 10

C2 expressed that the impacts of delays are important for their customers. Since a railcar accommodates nearly 3-3.5 truckloads, the delay of a shipment by rail will have a larger impact on the receivers than if a truck was delayed. R3 also expressed a preference for using a rail 3PL over rail as, from the company’s experience, the 3PL provides a higher quality of service and other value-added services such as sorting, packaging, and storage. R4 mentioned that since they only maintain two days of inventory, a delay on a key shipment could significantly impact their operations. This is a major issue for rail, which is perceived to be unreliable. With the increased need for JIT shipments due to insufficient inventory space at receiving locations, shippers need to fulfill frequent small orders leading to the increased use of faster more reliable modes to meet their customers’ needs. S5 values cost over the quality of service as on-time deliveries is not a major concern, except for a few locations where inventory management is a problem due to unreliable delivery times from rail.

A recurring theme in the IDIs was the use of cost and quality of service, in conjunction, to select the mode. This is shown in Table 2 with six of the interviewees selecting both factors and three of the six explicitly mentioning that they choose the most cost-effective method that will get the shipment to the destination on time: “When it comes to modal selection, generally we will choose the mode that will deliver the most cost-effective solution in getting it [there] when we want.” However, having on-time deliveries is a key factor for time-critical shipments. In these cases, they will opt for more expensive options to ensure a timely arrival. S1 uses air when expedited shipments are required. Conversely, S4 expressed that if there is flexibility in delivery times they opt for intermodal as much as possible.

Product type

The type of product being shipped was mentioned by six of the interviewees as a key factor in mode choice. R1 indicated that specialized products (e.g., trendy clothing items) are sent by truck, due to the pressure to get the product on shelves in a timely manner; while “standard” products that are not trendy or seasonal (e.g., paper towels) are shipped by rail. There is also a difference in mode, based on if the product is perishable or non-perishable. Perishable goods are typically shipped by truck while products that have a higher life span can be consolidated to fill a railcar, which is more cost effective. R3 that ships perishable items that require temperature-controlled settings, found that the refrigeration on the railcars is not up to par with company standards. For that reason they tend to use refrigerated trucks. Mention was also made of bulk products, typically sent by rail and barge, if there is access to these modes. S1 stated that for oversized and overweight cargo, too large for trucks and rail, there may not be any option other than waterways, irrespective of the value of the cargo and the cost of transportation. S5 typically uses rail because they mostly deal with volatile and hazardous materials that can be efficiently and safely handled by rail in large volumes. S2 uses rail for bulk liquid cargo of unit size (85-110 car shipments) as it is cost-effective, ¬¬ requiring less labor and handling.

Seasonal changes

Seasonal changes, due to weather and sales cycles, was identified by five of the eleven interviewees as a key influencer of freight mode choice. Four of the five interviewees specified that this is a major factor during the winter months. Inland waterways, in certain locations, are closed during the winter due to freezing and for rail; winter weather may also result in delays. This results in decreased use of rail, intermodal, and barge and increased use of trucks. C1 experiences a decrease in the shipment of agricultural products during the winter, to almost half the volume of what is typically shipped during end of spring and summer. R2 noted that there are changes in mode due to change in sale cycles. The pressures to deliver supplies before “Black Friday”—when retailers offer significant discounts—result in a faster stock turnover that leads to an increase in the use of trucks for faster deliveries.

Shipment size

The IDIs listed shipment size is a key factor in mode choice. Four of the interviewees mentioned that shipment size plays an important role in the mode decisions. R3 stated that the rail 3PL provider requires a minimum shipment size to book an entire railcar, which is only possible in peak season, otherwise other modes are used to transport the goods. S1, chooses rail primarily because of the size of the materials. Finally, for the carriers the shipment size is also very important. When they are transporting only FTL, the firm has to consolidate goods at the terminals before loading the cargo on to the trains. In the opinion of C2, it is not practical to use rail to handle LTL shipments because of the consolidating effort required. One of the major challenges the companies face is to fill a railcar at the right time.

Drayage and shipment distance

Four of the eleven interviewees indicated that the drayage distance influences mode choice. The range that was given by the interviewees indicated that drayage that exceeds the general range of 100 to 300 miles, would deter the use of rail or barges. Three interviewees consider shipment distance to play an important role in mode choice. Various interviewees indicated that there is a break-even point after which another mode should be used. The receivers mentioned that when comparing truck versus rail, the break point is in the range of 600-700 miles length of haul; anything above that, they will try to ship by rail. Rail also becomes an option for cargo being shipped long distances if water transport is not possible. Moreover, other companies aim to use intermodal as much as possible especially for trips that are between 700 – 900 miles long. S5 mentioned that it is the trade-off between distance and shipment size that decides the mode; truck is preferred for shorter distances and small shipments.

Other Factors

The factors included in this sections are those that were mentioned by two or less interviewees. One such factor was the infrastructure for inland waterways. S3 stated that the choice of using inland waterways is driven by access to consistent drafts and the condition of locks and dams. If the infrastructure is not appropriate, cargo is diverted to either rail or truck. C1 mentioned that the availability of suitable river terminals and loading equipment is crucial for competitive water transportation. Transit time as an influencer on mode choice was deemed important as it determines the cost of inventory-in-transit, and when the receiver would get the supplies. This leads to the use of faster modes such as trucks rather than intermodal or rail if the company needs the product in stores quicker; when the companies have the flexibility of time they can utilize the more cost efficient modes. There is also a concern for cargo damage. R3 told the authors that they are not able to ship delicate products such as certain fruits by rail as there is a larger risk of damage.

Another factor mentioned by a couple of shippers (S4 and S5) is the influence of receivers/customers in mode choice. S5 indicated that the client is the one that decides on the mode: “Based on what our customer wants, jointly decided by our commercial, transportation groups and the facility work together on what mode to use.” C2 mentioned that the customer being able to track the shipment throughout its journey is a plus for a mode. Another factor was identified by R2, who expressed that the need to do backhauls from DCs to vendors to leads to the use of trucks despite their interest to use intermodal.

Probably, one of the most interesting comments received was made by a mid-size shipper (S4) that indicated that, when making mode choice decisions, they take into account the size of the potential transport provider. In their opinion, large transport providers (in all modes) may not care much in providing a high quality of service to a much smaller client. According to their experience, transport providers of comparable size to their company provide much better service because the company’s business is more important to these carriers. They would not consider dealing directly with the railroads or large trucking companies, which they deem insensitive to the needs of mid-size shippers. This perception presents a major hurdle to increase rail market share. It also presents an opportunity to rail-based 3PL providers. These smaller, and more agile, companies purchase rail capacity in priority lanes which they proceed to sell to their customers. The terms of their contracts with the railroads ensure that the 3PLs get priority service and relatively short transit times. Moreover, by arranging the drayage to/from actual origins and destinations, these 3PLs provide a quality of service that may compete favorably with that of long-distance trucking. In the authors’ opinion, operations like these ones provide the best chance of increasing rail usage.

Recommendations to Increase Rail Market Share

The interviewees were asked to suggest what the public sector could do to increase their usage of more sustainable modes. Most of the firms indicated willingness to use more sustainable modes provided certain conditions are met. S4 mentioned that some customers ask for their involvement in sustainable programs such as SmartWay, before ordering goods. Another large receiver (R2) said that shifting to sustainable modes may reduce their transportation costs. The answers to this question provide insight into potential policies that may be able to induce mode shift and the probability of acceptance of policies of this nature. Table 11 presents the summary of major suggestions/improvements on each mode of transportation and respective quotes from the interviewees


Most shippers and receivers stated to be willing to use rail if the quality of service is up to their standards. R3 indicated that there is a need for better temperature control, reduced damage to sensitive goods, and consistent on-time deliveries. S2 expressed willingness to use rail if it offers competitive pricing, consistent service, and availability of labor and equipment (This firm often experiences delays due to what they perceive as insufficient labor and equipment at railroads). The shipper also mentioned that an early arrival of goods can lead to storage problems and extra costs. S3 pointed out that the operations of manifest trains—a mix of various railcars and cargo types—are not as well ran as the ones for unit trains. S4 mentioned that they do not get proper customer service and they cannot track shipments once they are in rail. Despite adopting a rigorous routing plan, C2 faces delays due to unpredictability in rail schedule; especially while switching between different railroad providers. It is not transparent for the firm when arrivals and departures of the trains are going to happen. S5 is keen on choosing a better railroad provider as the closest is not always reliable; also believes that the reciprocal switching regulation by Surface Transportation Board (STB)—two or more railroad providers allow each other to operate on the lines owned by them (Booth et al. 2016) could influence the future railroad choices.


S2 expressed willingness to use intermodal if the savings realized from the rail portion compensates for the costs associated with the extra handling. S2 also said that the firm uses intermodal for distances larger than 250 miles, otherwise it uses truck. R2 stated that, it cannot use intermodal despite the willingness to use, due to rail congestion, especially in the peak season. In R3’s opinion, the intermodal market share could be increased by supporting businesses that provide truck-rail 3PL service, as these firms take care of storage and drayage. Unavailability of intermodal at some geographic locations is forcing R4 to use trucks, though expensive. This firm also faces problems with inconsistent transit times from the intermodal services at other locations.

Inland Waterways

S1 mentioned that waterways can be a good choice, especially for larger shipments. S3 is willing to switch from truck to waterways if the maintenance of locks and dams improves. R3 experiences long waiting times, while S4 is not satisfied with the level of service offered by barges. C1 is convinced that it could increase its market share, if a few improvements are made. The first is the dredging of local canals that have not been carried out for years. The second is to preserve the land along rivers that are converting into either residential or recreational center at a faster rate. The last suggestion is to improve terminal operations. The interviewee mentioned that many river terminals are abandoned; it is important to make them operational so that the firm could start using them.


A couple of shippers (S2 and S4) were affected by the driver shortage produced by the changes in hours-of–service safety regulations that went into effect on July 1, 2013 (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration 2013). According to them, numerous truck drivers are exiting the market because of the working conditions and, particularly, the long stays away from their families. A shipper (S3) and a couple of large receivers (R1 and R4) said they would encourage increase in the weight limit in the trucks as doing so, reduces the transportation costs and decreases the number of truck trips.

Table 11

Discussion and conclusion

The results from the IDIs conducted from eleven firms comprising 4 receivers, 5 shippers, and 2 carriers to gain insights about their mode choice decisions. The study found that most of the firms went through changes in their logistics pattern over time. A shipper mentioned that they are doing more number of on-time deliveries to customers. A carrier has started providing warehouse, repackaging services for customers. Major factors influencing their mode choice are cost, reliability, consistent transit times, better tracking, product type, value, inventory, and drayage. Most of the shippers and receivers use truck due to more reliable, faster transport and less handling compared to rail or intermodal. The major problems faced with rail or intermodal are: inconsistent transit times, poor tracking, handling, and temperature control. Congestion in the intermodal lanes, delays in switching between railroads are also major concerns for a shipper and an intermodal carrier. A shipper is facing problems with congestion in inland waterways.

When the participants are asked regarding the improvements required, majority of the shippers or receivers are willing to switch to rail or intermodal if they can get consistent, reliable deliveries with a better customer service. A shipper wants more geographic spread in railroads. In waterways, a shipper and a carrier stressed the importance of dredging as a few foot depth makes waterways more cost-effective. They also mentioned the importance of preserving land along rivers and regular maintenance of terminals. In truck, a couple of receivers told that increase in the weight limit would reduce the costs by decreasing the number of trips. Overall, participants are willing to switch to more sustainable modes if the quality of service requirements are met and there is a great deal of improvements required from the policy perspective to achieve a better modal split.

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